Thirteen seconds of gunfire on this date, thirty-one years ago, turned a quiet Middle-American university in Kent Ohio into a symbol of student rebellion against the establishment. In recent weeks, a new controversy at Kent State has pitted students against each other -- in the name of free speech. 90.3's David C. Barnett reports.
David C. Barnett- The editorial room of the Daily Kent Stater is filled with rows of computer monitors. Transfixed writers are manipulating mice to rearrange paragraphs and check spelling. The air is filled with last-minute decisions and evaluations... as preparations are made to put the finishing touches on the next day's edition.
The Stater has recently been through a period of soul-searching due to an advertising request made by conservative writer David Horowitz. Horowitz has sparked controversy on other American campuses by attempting to buy ads that challenge the national "Slavery Reparations" movement. A bold headline reads: "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea- and Racist Too." The ad then proceeds to make such statements as "Reparations to African Americans have already been paid through welfare and affirmative action". Another line argues that: "Most living Americans have no connection, direct or indirect, to slavery"
Chris Wetterich- It's been difficult...it really has. It's the hardest decision I've ever had to make for anything.
DCB- Daily Kent Stater Editor Chris Wetterich decided last week... to reject the ad -- setting himself up for charges that he was denying the free speech rights of David Horowitz. Wetterich then moved to dampen such criticism by instituting a new policy at the paper - from now on, the Stater will accept no more political advertising from anyone, conservative or liberal. He calls it an "imperfect solution".
CW- I wanted to run the ad, but I just wasn't willing to impose my will...or say, damn it, this is what we are going to do...because the newspaper doesn't only belong to me. I'm not the publisher. I don't own it. And I wanted to listen to what my staff had to say. And they overwhelmingly told me not to run it.
Tim Smith- I think that Chris made the right decision for the wrong reason.
DCB- The decision bothers Kent State Journalism professor Tim Smith, who maintains that imposing one's will is what being an editor is all about.
TS- I have been preaching here for quite some time that newspapers are not democracies. The editor is in charge. The editor is solely responsible for the content of that newspaper.
DCB- Raymond Vasvari is Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio...and he doesn't like the precedent that this sets.
Raymond Vasvari- I think it's regrettable. A newspaper is more than a private endeavor. In a society that requires the free discussion of controversial issues...a society like ours...it's a public trust. Now, the newspaper is certainly within its rights to reject the advertisement, but I think the better and more interesting question is whether it should have rejected the ad. And I think the answer to that is: No.
D'Andra Mull- Actually, I'm quite pleased that they decided to pull the ad, based upon the fact that I've talked to various students and they felt that it would do nothing but cause more harm...and that wasn't appropriate.
DCB- D'Andra Mull is Executive Director of Kent State's Undergraduate Student Senate, as well as being a member of KSU's Black United Students organization. Mull thinks that an individual's first amendment rights need to be balanced against the rights of the larger community.
DM- I believe that free speech should not be censored...but when it's something that tends to infringe on the rights of other students to feel comfortable in the student environment, then I feel that you've infringed upon their rights. So, I don't buy the free speech argument in terms of the article, at all.
DCB- The ACLU's Raymond Vasvari disagrees.
RV- The Horowitz ad may stir some people up. It may anger some people. But it may also bring some issues to the fore that need to be discussed openly. That's the function of free speech. The Supreme Court said it as long as 60 years ago: "Free speech best serves its function in our country when it agitates dispute, dialog and debate."
DCB- All of this comes at a time when the Kent campus is getting ready to observe the anniversary of the May 4th, 1970 shootings. The deaths of students during the course of anti-war protests has been cited by some as an extreme example of the stifling of free expression. Student leader D'Andra Mull thinks that's a bad comparison.
DM- From what I understand it wasn't necessarily that they denied their right to protest. Things got out of hand on both parts. We've always been taught, in the four years that I've been on campus, that we do have a right to protest. It's just the manner in which you do things. I'm not saying that the students who were protesting were wrong by any means. But, I don't necessarily think that their right to protest was denied; it's just a matter of a state of order that needs to be kept in any protest.
DCB- Still, Stater editor Chris Wetterich thinks it's hard to shake the connection between protests now and then.
CW- You can certainly see some irony there...I don't deny that. Some people think of Kent as the free speech martyr...and it is.
DCB- Today's Daily Kent Stater features a run-down of the 31st annual May Fourth observance. In the wake of a dispute over the purchase of advertising for controversial ideas, some might find further irony in the title of this year's commemoration: "The Cost of Freedom". In Kent, I'm David C. Barnett for 90.3 WCPN.